Fall surge feared as Georgia COVID-19 cases rise again

Latest White House report also shows worrisome trends.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Coronavirus cases are again on the rise in Georgia, sparking fears among some health experts that the expected autumn surge gripping states across the nation has arrived in the Peach State.

The seven-day rolling average of new cases in Georgia has climbed about 42% since bottoming out Oct. 2, and current hospitalizations have started to climb after weeks of improvement, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of state data shows.

In a worrying sign, the latest White House Coronavirus Task Force report, dated Sunday and obtained by the AJC Wednesday, said more than 80% of Georgia hospitals reported having fewer than three days' worth of N95 masks, surgical gowns and gloves.

For now, cases in Georgia remain well below the summer surge that strained the state’s health care infrastructure and led to thousands of deaths. Georgia’s current rate of spread also is not as severe as the outbreaks seen in the Upper Midwest and Northwest.

Georgia started this latest surge in cases at nearly double the level that preceded the summer wave. And health experts said the cooler months ahead could be bleak in Georgia if residents do not heed warnings to wear masks, practice social distancing, wash hands, get a flu shot and avoid gatherings, particularly in poorly ventilated spaces.

“We’re starting off in a bad position,” said Dr. Lynn Paxton, director of the Fulton County Board of Health.

‘Signs of deterioration’

Georgia remained in the orange zone, or the second most severe level, for new cases in the latest White House coronavirus report. The state also remained in the yellow zone for test positivity last week.

Georgia ranked 34th nationally in new cases at 93 per 100,000 people, just under the red zone. The state ranked 29th for test positivity, for the seven days that ended Friday.

But the state’s outbreak is likely worse than the official data because the results of rapid antigen tests are not included in the White House assessment. And an AJC analysis of new confirmed cases over the past seven days shows Georgia would now be in the White House’s red zone for the first time since last month.

The task force warned of “signs of deterioration in the Sunbelt, now including Georgia, as mitigation efforts were decreased over the last month.”

“Georgia must expand mitigation in the counties with rising cases and new hospital admissions,” the task force said. “Mitigation efforts should continue to include mask wearing, physical distancing, hand hygiene, avoiding crowds in public and social gatherings in private, and ensuring flu immunizations.”

In recent weeks, President Donald Trump held a large campaign rally in Macon in violation of Gov. Brian Kemp’s 50-person gathering limit. Trump’s campaign rallies frequently run counter to the advice of his own task force.

Residents have complained of bustling bars, nightclubs and house parties.

A recent AJC survey of law enforcement agencies across the state found few issued any citations for gatherings of more than 50, though many said they issue warnings and attempt to educate homeowners and businesses about COVID-19 restrictions.

The task force also warned of potential viral spread from Halloween parties and said signs remain of “community spread initiated by social friends and family gatherings.”

“People must remember that seemingly uninfected family members and friends may be infected but asymptomatic,” the report said. “Exposure to asymptomatic cases can easily lead to spread as people unmask in private gatherings."

Allison Chamberlain, an epidemiologist and professor who leads the Emory COVID-19 Response Collaborative at Emory University, said as the weather gets cooler, people will do more indoors, posing high risks of transmission. She said indoor Halloween parties, and holiday gatherings such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukah and New Year’s, are concerning.

The more that can be done outdoors, she said, the better.

“As people move into the holiday season and we have this innate desire to be around our loved ones we have to keep in mind we are the ones that transmit this virus,” Chamberlain said.

Amber Schmidtke, a public health researcher and former Mercer University professor who tracks Georgia’s epidemic on her widely read blog, said hospitals need to be prepared for a surge.

“We are in a vulnerable position,” she said.

‘Virus fatigue’

On Wednesday, Georgia reported 1,734 net new cases and 34 net new deaths attributed to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. To date, the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) has reported 355,025 confirmed cases and 7,876 deaths attributed to the disease.

The state said 1,419 people are currently hospitalized with the coronavirus and the rolling average of current hospitalizations is up nearly 10% in the past two weeks.

Paxton, the Fulton health director, attributed the rise in cases in part to people not following health guidance or consistently wearing masks.

“We’ve got virus fatigue. But the virus does not care,” she said.

Paxton said her agency will distribute 500,000 reusable masks, beginning with giveaways at polling places. The agency is also offering flu shots at most testing centers.

Same day appointments for testing are available and results are typically returned within 48 hours, a vast improvement over the summer when the state’s testing infrastructure was pushed to its breaking point.

On Tuesday, DPH published its latest weekly statewide COVID-19 update. The state reported 123 outbreaks last week, 30 more than a week earlier.

Twenty-five were at schools, 24 were at long-term care homes, 19 were listed as outbreaks in workplaces and five were at detention facilities.

Nancy Nydam, a spokeswoman for DPH, urged Georgians to follow health guidelines and to cooperate with disease detectives known as contact tracers who help isolate exposed individuals to curtail spread.

“We are beginning to see an uptick in COVID testing — testing and contact tracing can help prevent further spread of COVID-19, but we need people to participate in the contact tracing process,” Nydam said.